Belfast Telegraph

Take Azerbaijan lightly at your peril, Stuart Elliott warns Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

Former Northern Ireland star Stuart Elliott believes Michael O'Neill's side must approach Friday's World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan with the same frame of mind as they would if they were facing Russia or Portugal.

The Northern Ireland players were criticised, not least by their manager, for adopting the wrong attitude to last month's game in Luxembourg and it proved costly with the underdogs winning 3-2 and registering their first home success in a World Cup qualifier in over 40 years.

That shock result has left O'Neill's team fighting to avoid bottom place in Group F with away games against Azerbaijan and Israel finishing the campaign.

In November, Azerbaijan drew 1-1 at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland missed a host of chances. Had it not been for substitute David Healy's injury time equaliser, the visitors would have won the match.

To date, the countries have met three times and the only occasion Northern Ireland came out on top was in September 2005 when, thanks to a stunning Elliott free-kick and late penalty from Warren Feeney, Lawrie Sanchez's men won 2-0.

That gave the players and fans a massive lift entering the epic encounter with England a few days later, when Northern Ireland emerged victorious courtesy of Healy's famous strike.

Elliott, who started his career at Glentoran before being successful at Motherwell and Hull City across the water, recalls: "It was important to beat Azerbaijan back then so we could go into the England match with momentum and confidence.

"It was also great for me personally to score. It wasn't just a tap in either, it was a really good goal and one that I'll never forget.

"When England came to Belfast we were the underdogs and there was no pressure on us. We had a certain way of playing under Lawrie and it really worked for us. We really roughed England up from the word go and we got the dream result. The Azerbaijan game was key to that because it helped give us real self belief."

In that victory over Azerbaijan eight years ago, there was an intensity and desire sweeping through the Northern Ireland side. The same determination will be required in Baku on Friday.

"People talk about tough games and easy games but in my opinion for Northern Ireland there are no easy games in international football," says committed Christian Stuart, who recently set up his his own evangelical ministry here called One Goal Ministries.

"All the smaller countries are catching up and progressing. Every team now has quality players and we have no divine right to beat anyone. We have to work hard all the time to get a result.

"It ought not to be the case that you treat teams differently but even fans going to games will be more excited about seeing Northern Ireland face Russia than Azerbaijan. The supporters are up more for the bigger matches and subconsciously it can happen as a footballer.

"I'm not saying it always happens but human nature plays a part. To be successful you must approach every game with the same mentality, so for this match with Azerbaijan we need to be ready for it like we would be if we were playing Russia or Portugal."

Left winger Elliott, who won 36 caps for his country providing balance, work-rate and a goal threat, feels that too many late goals have hurt Northern Ireland in the qualifying campaign, but is backing manager O'Neill, who arrived in Baku with his squad yesterday.

The 35-year-old said: "I was disappointed with the Luxembourg defeat and felt for Michael O'Neill after that because I believe he is doing a fantastic job. I like the way he has gone about it trying to bring new players into the squad and mix them with more experienced players. It would be great for him if we could end the campaign on a high with good results in Azerbaijan and Israel."

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